The Virtuous CIO  

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July 25, 2010 — Consumer IT

We had talked a while back about cell phone platforms, and I would like to take a slightly different approach today. One of the emerging trends that IT professionals, and the rest of the industry, are watching is the consumerization of IT. As a result of the long-term trends which drive down costs, and place microprocessors in everything, we have end users who are so satisfied with the technology they use at home that they want to bring it to work as well.

These well-meaning users who want to connect to the company e-mail system with their iPhones, or attach their netbook to the organizational network, or even those who are now taking newfound delight in their iPads, are raising merry havoc with the orderly universe we IT professionals have created as enterprise infrastructure. Our first impulse, of course, is to run around in circles waving our arms in the air and screaming. After recovering from the incipient panic, our natural inclination is to tie down the entry points to the company network so tightly that no foreign device will ever connect.

Upon further reflection we need to consider this trend and determine whether it is wise, or even possible, to halt the flow of consumer devices into our businesses. Most of this equipment has been created with the consumer in mind, with little thought given to the pantheon worshiped by IT operations: that is security, privacy, reliability, and support. If we are looking at a mega trend, we may ultimately live in a world where all end-user equipment is provided by the end-user. If that is the case we may find ourselves in a position characterized in all those trite analogies, such as bailing the ocean, swimming upstream, or even playing whack-a-mole.

Let me suggest an alternative to the conventional IT wisdom. Rather than fighting the emergence of a consumer IT economy, we should embrace it. Before you go back to running around in circles and screaming, bear with me a minute. I believe there may be some marvelous opportunities for IT professionals as this trend plays out.

First of all there are economic benefits. If every employee carries his own notebook, net book, Smart phone, or slate device to work, we have eliminated an entire class of equipment which has to be purchased, installed, supported, and eventually disposed of. As we move into the world of virtual desktops, the answer to the question of what our desktop platform is is increasingly "who cares." We have freed up a nice chunk of cash in our excruciatingly tight IT budgets that we can spend on manageable virtual desktops, or security, or better broadband. We can see a potential headcount reduction in support staff, which also frees up budget dollars, and incidentally makes the human resources people happy.

Secondly, it is easier to deal with the end-user's expectations with respect to the device sitting in front of them. Their expectations are either satisfied, because they bought the thing, or they will go buy something else. Any corporate application will naturally be hosted, rather than running on the device. IT can focus on managing the hosted application, and dealing with security issues at the border between the server and the end-user device. Security becomes easier because we can demand certain basic requirements for the end-user device to attach to the network. Because of TCP/IP we have the benefit of working with a known set of open standards, which everyone understands. This places pressure upon vendors of consumer devices to accommodate the standards so the consumer can use the device in their work environment, which, incidentally, will allow said vendor to sell more devices.

The smart CIO will figure out a way to educate the users on those basic requirements for connecting to the corporate network. If you handle it right, you will be able to point the consumer end-user back to the vendor to configure the device for the corporate network. If you make a big deal about this, having saved all that money, and reduced headcount, it becomes easier to push the CEO back to the vendor of the new device he carried into work this morning.

Obviously we need to be thoughtful in how we prepare for this transition. If you do not handle it correctly, you might discover you are part of a headcount reduction. However I believe it is just as deadly for us to stick our heads in the sand and hope that wave washing over us is just a one-time event, and not a rising tide.